Future Shuttle Flight Dates Uncertain in Hurricane's Wake
Hurricane Katrina left holes in the roof of the Vertical Assembly Building at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.
Credit: NASA.

The timing of NASA's next shuttle launch remains uncertain as the space agency works to recover key facilities from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, agency officials said Thursday.

In addition to spreading widespread devastation across the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina damaged NASA's external tank-producing Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, as well as Stennis Space Center, where shuttle main engines are tested, in Mississippi.

While some NASA officials still hope to launch around March 2006, they were unable to complete a feasibility analysis for that target before the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast last week.

"We're in the process of evaluating it," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said of a possible spring launch during a teleconference with reporters.

The update followed reports of an internal Sept. 1 memo by Wayne Hale, NASA's acting shuttle program manager, in which he suggested that "launch dates before fall [2006] may not be credible."

"Right now, we're still addressing what the implications are on the shuttle launch schedule, and if I say I don't know what those are, that's an understatement," NASA chief Michael Griffin told employees in a televised address, according to the Associated Press.

Gerstenmaier said Hale's note was a very preliminary paper used to discuss some of the initial points raised by the hurricane. Hale, himself, labeled the memo "extremely preliminary," according to the document.

"It's really too difficult to predict," Gerstenmaier said of future shuttle launch dates.

Gerstenmaier said NASA set aside about $1.1 billion - $500 million for Michoud and $600 million for Stennis - to aid recovery efforts at the two sites. But those funds were based on preliminary damage estimates based on photographs and the space agency's past experience with hurricanes at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, he added.

In addition to damage at both facilities, up to 900 Stennis employees have lost their homes, said NASA's William Parsons, who is spearheading the agency's hurricane relief effort. Almost 4,000 people were evacuated to Stennis Space Center when Hurricane Katrina hit, he added.

All of the Stennis center's civil servants have been accounted for, as well as 95 percent of its contractor personnel, Parsons said, adding that Lockheed Martin is still tracking down about half of its 2,000 employees at Michoud. The 15 NASA employees stationed at the New Orleans facility have been accounted for, he added.

External tank work continues

NASA's next shuttle flight depends on when engineers solve a foam debris shedding problem observed during the July 26 launch of the space shuttle Discovery.

A 1-pound piece of foam insulation fell from a protective ramp on Discovery's tank during launch. While that chunk of foam did not strike Discovery, a similar shedding event did strike the space shuttle Columbia during its ill-fated 2003 launch. Columbia's heat shield was damaged in the impact and the shuttle broke apart during reentry, killing its seven-astronaut crew.

NASA engineers are still unsure of the exact cause of the latest foam loss, but have narrowed it to a few potential sources, shuttle officials said.

"It looks like it's going to be very unlikely that we're going to be able to just remove the...ramp and fly," Gerstenmaier said.

Some tank studies are underway at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, while other non-destructive analyses will likely be moved from Michoud to KSC while the New Orleans facility rebuilds, Gerstenmaier added.

Trucking to Michoud

Conditions are improving daily at Michoud and Stennis, though only recently have recovery teams managed to reach the external tank facility by road, NASA officials said. The facility was previously only accessible by helicopters, they added.

"We're starting to supply them by truck," Parson said. "Up until last night, the Michoud facility was cut off."

Michoud suffered roof damage when Hurricane Katrina struck, including the external tank storehouse. One tank was damaged when concrete, knocked loose in the storm, hit it, Parsons said.

"We haven't been able to evaluate that damage," Parsons said, adding that cursory looks suggest it's superficial. "We're trying to safe the facility."

Tornadoes damaged some roofs at the Stennis center, but overall the facility fared "very well," Parsons said.

ISS obligations

While NASA's focus is centered on the hurricane recovery effort and displaced personnel, the agency is confident the storm will not severely impact plans to return the shuttle to flight and complete construction on the International Space Station (ISS).

Many of NASA's international partners are waiting for shuttle flights to loft their components to the ISS before the agency's three remaining orbiters are retired in 2010. Before the next ISS assembly flight - STS-115 aboard Atlantis - engineers must complete their external tank modifications, and the Discovery orbiter must fly STS-121, NASA's second return to flight mission.

"We're still going to be able to accomplish our goals for a good station configuration for shuttle retirement," Gerstenmaier said. "In our schedule and planning we assumed that we'd have some shuttle problems along the way."

The agency also needs to secure a return trip for NASA astronaut, and ISS Expedition 12 commander, Bill McArthur.

McArthur and Expedition 12 flight engineer Valery Tokarev are scheduled to launch toward the ISS atop a Soyuz spacecraft late Sept. 30. Space tourist and scientist Greg Olsen will also accompany the Expedition 12 crew to the ISS for a brief stay.

While Tokarev is slated to return on that Soyuz in April 2006, McArthur planned to stay aboard until May and catch a shuttle ride back to Earth. Shuttle officials said they are making contingency plans in case of a further delay.

"We'll get a ride home for [McArthur] on a Soyuz," said Gerstenmaier. "We'll have a ride for him."